Wednesday, November 14, 2007

St. Pancras to Europe


Today a new era in travel between the UK and Europe has begun with the shifting of the Eurostar rail service from Waterloo Station to St. Pancras. This change is the culmination of two integrated projects, the refurbishment and upgrade of St.Pancras station into an international rail terminal, and the completion of the fastest high speed rail link in the UK, allowing 186mph rail journeys from the Channel Tunnel to St. Pancras.

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The upgrade knocks around 20 minutes off of the rail trip from London to Paris. Frankly, air travel between London and Paris, and Brussels has become increasingly pointless. Not least because the need to check in, the tightening of security at airports (not that security is absent on Eurostar), and the distance of Heathrow and Charles De Gaulle airports from London and Paris city centres - means rail travel is simply faster and more pleasant than being boxed in on a short flight, that may be delayed for ages at either airport due to congestion. The cost of this line is an incredible £5.2 billion - astronomical, not least because it involves a 19km tunnel under east London.

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However, today was not the day to debate the questionable value of this investment, only undertaken through convaluted financial arrangements with essentially the British taxpayer supporting it - and today was not the day to remind people that the line is expected only to be used to one-quarter of its capacity, and only half the trains are actually needed. Today was the day of St. Pancras.

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St. Pancras is now, once again, London's premier station. Built by the Midland Railway Company back when Britain's railways were being built and run by the unfettered private sector, it was designed to be (and succeeded in being) grander than the Kings Cross and Euston stations of the competing railway companies of the age - Great Northern Railway and London and North Western Railway. Following the demolition of the original Euston for functional yet uninspiring current terminal, St. Pancras was saved from demolition under British Rail (after nationalisation by the Atlee Labour Government) by the efforts of John Betjemen the poet.

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So now the Gothic wonder of grand old St. Pancras has been painstakingly restored, and I have yet to see it for myself. However, it promises to be grander, and a far more alluring gateway than the overcrowded Waterloo. In a few months time I hope to be able to test this. Meanwhile, judge for yourselves from the website or Eurostar's website.

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